Henry James isn’t famed for making people laugh, but when he’s guarding his turf an evil sense of humor can rear its toothy head. For example, in the sections of his famous “Art of Fiction” essay where he is responding directly to Walter Besant’s lecture of the same name, James is hilariously withering (and Besant’s philistinism well deserves it). And in “The Death of the Lion,” previously discussed by me here, he takes on literary journalism as personified by the comically monstrous Mr. Morrow, who shows up with a notebook one afternoon at the home of the reclusive author Neil Paraday. Also on the scene is the story’s narrator, a critic who considers himself above mere literary fashion and who here interposes himself between the voracious would-be reporter and his reluctant quarry.
Mr. Morrow glared, agreeably, through his glasses: they suggested the electric headlights of some monstrous modern ship, and I felt as if Paraday and I were tossing terrified under his bows. I saw that his momentum was irresistible. “I was confident that I should be the first in the field,” he declared. “A great interest is naturally felt in Mr. Paraday’s surroundings.”
“I hadn’t the least idea of it,” said Paraday, as if he had been told he had been snoring.
“I find he has not read the article in The Empire,” Mr. Morrow remarked to me. “That’s so very interesting–it’s something to start with,” he smiled. He had begun to pull off his gloves, which were violently new, and to look encouragingly round the little garden. As a “surrounding” I felt that I myself had already been taken in; I was a little fish in the stomach of a bigger one. “I represent,” our visitor continued, “a syndicate of influential journals, no less than thirty-seven, whose public–whose publics, I may say–are in peculiar sympathy with Mr. Paraday’s line of thought. They would greatly appreciate any expression of his views on the subject of the art he so brilliantly practises. Besides my connection with the syndicate just mentioned, I hold a particular commission from The Tatler, whose most prominent department, ‘Smatter and Chatter’–I daresay you’ve often enjoyed it–attracts such attention. I was honoured only last week, as a representative of The Tatler, with the confidence of Guy Walsingham, the author of ‘Obsessions.’ She expressed herself thoroughly pleased with my sketch of her method; she went so far as to say that I had made her genius more comprehensible even to herself.”
…Not because I had brought my mind back, but because our visitor’s last words were in my ear, I presently inquired with gloomy irrelevance whether Guy Walsingham were a woman.
“Oh yes, a mere pseudonym; but convenient, you know, for a lady who goes in for the larger latitude. ‘Obsessions, by Miss So-and-So,’ would look a little odd, but men are more naturally indelicate. Have you peeped into ‘Obsessions’?” Mr. Morrow continued sociably to our companion.
Paraday, still absent, remote, made no answer, as if he had not heard the question: a manifestation that appeared to suit the cheerful Mr. Morrow as well as any other. Imperturbably bland, he was a man of resources–he only needed to be on the spot. He had pocketed the whole poor place while Paraday and I were woolgathering, and I could imagine that he had already got his “heads.” His system, at any rate, was justified by the inevitability with which I replied, to save my friend the trouble: “Dear, no; he hasn’t read it. He doesn’t read such things!” I unwarily added.
“Things that are too far over the fence, eh?” I was indeed a godsend to Mr. Morrow. It was the psychological moment; it determined the appearance of his notebook, which, however, he at first kept slightly behind him, as the dentist, approaching his victim, keeps his horrible forceps. “Mr. Paraday holds with the good old proprieties–I see!” And, thinking of the thirty-seven influential journals, I found myself, as I found poor Paraday, helplessly gazing at the promulgation of this inepititude. “There’s no point on which distinguished views are so acceptable as on this question–raised perhaps more strikingly than ever by Guy Walsingham–of the permissibility of the larger latitude. I have an appointment, precisely in connection with it, next week, with Dora Forbes, the author of ‘The Other Way Round,’ which everybody is talking about. Has Mr. Paraday glanced at ‘The Other Way Round’?…Dora Forbes, I gather, takes the ground, the same as Guy Walsingham’s, that the larger latitude has simply got to come. He holds that it has got to be squarely faced. Of course his sex makes him a less prejudiced witness. But an authoritative word from Mr. Paraday–from the point of view of his sex, you know–would go right round the globe. He takes the line that we haven’t got to face it?”
I was bewildered; it sounded somehow as if there were three sexes. My interlocutor’s pen was poised, my private responsibility great. I simply sat staring, however, and only found presence of mind to say: “Is this Miss Forbes a gentleman?”
Mr. Morrow hesitated an instant, smiling: “It wouldn’t be ‘Miss’–there’s a wife!”
“I mean, is she a man?”
“The wife?”–Mr. Morrow, for a moment, was as confused as myself. But when I explained that I alluded to Dora Forbes in person he informed me, with visible amusement at my being so out of it, that this was the “pen-name” of an indubitable male–he had a big red moustache. “He only assumes a feminine personality because the ladies are such popular favorites. A great deal of interest is felt in this assumption, and there’s every prospect of its being widely imitated.”
Who’s on first? Of course, the narrator is being skewered here, too, for his pompous, principled disengagement from fashion–absurd as that fashion may be. The narrator is exposed by the prim horror with which he regards Morrow, Morrow principally by his own speeches. If Morrow never opened his mouth, we might well find him sympathetic just by virtue of how effortlessly he moves our priggish narrator to overblown similes involving barges and dentists. We don’t have to trust the author’s or narrator’s assertion that both of these men are ridiculous–James has each character manage to damn himself, just by being himself.